Now close your eyes and take a deep breath!
Maybe you’ve just noticed your breath for the first time today?
Luckily our autonomic nervous system usually takes care of the breath and we don’t have to worry about it. In daily life we use phrases which hint already at the importance of the breath: something takes our breath away, the breath caught, with bated breath. One could notice the close connection between the breath and our emotions in these common sayings. Emotions are tight-knit to our mind and in yoga and meditation we ultimately seek to train the mind. Knowing all that, we have a very powerful tool in our hands.
“The mind is the king of our senses. The breath is the king of our mind.”
– B.K.S Iyengar
But what is breathing actually?
The physiologically most important function of the breath is to provide our cells with enough oxygen. This becomes quite obvious if you try not to breathe for two minutes. The average adult takes about 15 breaths per minute and with every inhale the lung gets filled with about 0,5 liters of air. So when we’re breathing there are a lot of body parts working together in our favor. The diaphragm performs 60-80 percent of the needed muscular power while chest and belly muscles also have to work smoothly. Most important however are of course our lungs. Did you know that your lungs actually look like a tree turned upside down? And the very end parts of your lungs reach up all the way to your collar bones? During respiration there are two hollow spaces in our body which change with every in- and exhale: the chest and the belly area, both of which carry vital organs. So when we use our full lung capacity we give these organs a heavenly massage as well.
The breath in yoga
Pranayama (prāṇāyāma) can be loosely translated as “control (ayama) of life force or energy (prana)”. A great part of this are breathing exercises, but the breath is just one way of controlling and directing this life energy. Patañjali writes in his yoga sutras in the second book, the sādhana pada, that one should have an asana practice before immersing in breathing exercise, so let’s go back to the yogi’s roots:
(all the following yoga sutra transliterations and translations are from “Words About Now: The Yoga Sutras for the Modern Practicioner. Brown, James.“)
2.49. tasmin sati shvasa prashvsayoh gati vichhedah pranayamah
“Upon the existence (of asana), control vital energy by interrupting the normal movement of the breath.”
He goes on by explaining pranayama a bit further:
2.50 bahya abhyantara stambha vrittih desha kala sankhyabhih paridrishtah dirgha sukshmah
“(Pranayama) changes the exhale, the inhale or the holding of the breath; all in terms of location, time and number; then one sees for a long time subtle matter.”
And then he refers to the other pranayama, which is a subtle way of guiding prana:
2.51 bahya abhyantara vishaya akshepi chaturthah
“There is a fourth (pranayama) that transcends the experience of external/internal.”
So very often you find Yoga described as a way of movement connected to the breathing rhythm. More fitting would be the description of Yoga as a way of breathing which is followed by movement. The foundation for guiding the breath is observing the breath, becoming aware of your patterns. We all have unconscious breathing patterns which are usually a very flat, shallow and constricted way of breathing. This can manifest itself in tension and restlessness in both body and mind. So pranayama can make a huge difference here. Various techniques give us tools to calm and relax or to invigorate and activate ourselves. In any case brings us conscious breathing back into the present moment and that’s what we’re practicing in yoga and mediation.
So why is the hashtag #pranayamaeverydamnday not nearly as successful as #yogaeverydamnday? A daily pranayama practice requires more discipline to start with. In the asana practice it is way easier to silence our monkey mind (citta) since we are occupied with bending, twisting and so on. If we “only” sit and “only” breathe, our mind wanders off more easily and it becomes bored and irritated. The subtle work with the breath is therefore harder in the beginning, but more rewarding in the long run.
So why bother breathing?
Here are a few advantages you can expect when you have a daily breathing practice:
a more equanimous mood in general, since you are able to directly influence your emotions with your breath
a clear, sharp mind as well as better focus and concentration
a better maintenance of your whole body because you use all your lung capacity
an increase in your general well-being
A deep breath also releases the body’s own endorphins, and who doesn’t want that?
Stay tuned for my favourite breathing exercises in the following posts!
Thanks for reading 💖 Find the German version here.